You can have the tour bus, I’m taking the gold discs
Breaking up is hard to do, but so is staying in a relationship when you and your other half have just spent six months touring together. Cian Traynor on the highs and lows of noodling and canoodling
AFTER 13 YEARS together, the White Stripes still harbour one great taboo: their former marriage. The duo have always courted an enigmatic image and a new behind-the-scenes documentary, Under Great White Northern Lights, does little to illuminate it – the film’s press release even refers to Meg as Jack’s “big sister”. The truth is that Jack adopted her surname when they married in 1996, and despite separating before the release of their debut album, they carried on and pretended to be siblings instead. But where The White Stripes remain evasive, others are willing to explain the complexities of being a couple within a band.
Mariam Wallentin is about to reveal a secret. The singer from Swedish duo Wildbirds & Peacedrums usually evades questions about her relationship with her bandmate and husband, but is willing to elaborate on how whirlwind touring has forced the pair to plan time apart.
“If we’re going on a two-month tour then we’re like, ‘is this a good idea? Maybe we need a break in between. Maybe I need to go away’,” says Wallentin. “Sometimes it’s funny because the promoter will book separate rooms for us and we’re like, ‘Yay!’ And then you think, ‘My God, we have a fucked-up relationship’. But in one way it’s not fucked up, it’s just different.”
The dynamic between romantically involved bandmates has inspired some of music’s most popular releases. ABBA’s The Winner Takes It All and Knowing Me, Knowing You are the sounds of estranged lovers assessing the wreckage of their relationship, with Björn noting in hindsight that “we sold more records after the divorces”.
Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham credited the success of Rumours –a convergence of inter-band break-ups and affairs – to audiences “investing in us as people and realising that this music was actually cross-dialogue to each other”.
But splitting up doesn’t necessarily require a swansong. Eurythmics’s Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox ended their relationship just before signing a record deal, while The Swell Season’s Markéta Irglová and Glen Hansard went from friends to lovers and back again. Yet from the Handsome Family to the Handsome Furs, few musical romances have endured the inevitable strains. So how do you make it work?
Soon after Martina Sorbara and Dan Kurtz began an affair, they decided to get married and merge their music careers. Together they’re one half of Dragonette, a Canadian pop group who can count Björk and Kanye West among their fans. Boundaries are essential, Sorbara believes. Don’t communicate with your lover through lyrics. Don’t mention the upcoming tour while in bed. Don’t make bandmates feel like their parents are fighting. And no Blackberries at dinner.
“We just came off the road and had an emotional relationship breakdown,” says a timid-sounding down Sorbara down a phone line from the Dominican Republic. “All of a sudden, you look at each other and realise, ‘I haven’t acted towards you like you’re my husband in months. You’ve just been my business partner’.” An aggrieved “OK! OK!” can be heard in the background as her husband is shooed away. “It’s so complicated. There are all these things you can’t foresee. You just get wrapped up in your career and all the lines get blurred.”
Following the break-up of influential dream-pop band Galaxie 500 in 1990, twothirds of the group forged a career on their own terms as husband-and-wife duo Damon & Naomi. Speaking from their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Naomi describes the experience as a “huge loss of innocence”. Though the duo’s biggest fights are typically when they slip into the roles of diva and producer during recording, experience has served them well.
“In a way, we retired,” says Damon. “Having ambitions for this corporate unit and making decisions that are affecting your lifestyle and livelihood – we’ve never done that kind of thing again. Those are the things that destroyed Galaxie 500 and the friendships within it. It took us years to go back on the road. Now we only have to please ourselves and scrape by. That’s been the long-term solution for us.”
When electronic duo Matmos formed in San Francisco 18 years ago, making music together began with a pick-up line. “It was hand-in-hand from the beginning,” says Martin Schmidt, giggling. While they can laugh about sniping at each other during soundchecks or arguing in the front seat of a van with another band for a captive audience in the back (“Sadly, people who would not have otherwise seen a gay bitch fight get to see one”), they appreciate what it has taken to stay together.
“The trouble with being in a band with your partner is that one part of the world multiplies the other,” says Drew Daniel. “So if you’re getting along really well, it can lead to a greater intimacy on an artistic level. But if you start to argue about a bass line, you’re probably not having sex that night. And you can always tell when there’s something behind a certain tone of voice. But I think the records where we fought the most are our strongest.”
The band dynamic is slightly different for Low. Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, highschool sweethearts who met as nine-year-olds, are Mormon and take their two children on tour with them. Though Sparhawk admits it can be difficult for the band’s third member (there have been four since they formed in 1993), he often feels like the odd man out when tension escalates.
“As much as we’re known for mellow music, we’re fairly chaotic people. There were moments where we constantly thought, ‘what the hell are we doing? Everybody is wound up or attacking each other.’ Sometimes you look at the person across the practice room and you’re amazed at how much your brain can trick you into thinking they’re your enemy, says Sparhawk.
“But despite the peril that it truly is, it’s an unspeakable depth to reach in a relationship. It’s worth every struggle and moment that it doesn’t work. The minute you accept there are no boundaries, it’s fine. Life is intense . . . relationships can be too. So it’s harder, but worth it.”
Marriage, the hardest button to button: (from top) Galaxie 500, Wildbirds & Peacedrums, The White Stripes